Deciding between AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC can be a big decision. Here are two main factors in choosing the better fit, from an AP Calculus tutor’s perspective.
The Difference between AP Calculus AB and BC
AP Calculus AB is similar to a college Calculus I course. AP Calculus BC is equivalent to taking both Calculus I and II.
AP Calculus AB covers limits, derivatives, and integrals. AP Calculus BC covers those AB topics, with additional integration techniques, series, vectors, and polar curves. Find out more specific curriculum differences between AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC.
Ultimately, the biggest difference will be the pace of the course. Since BC covers more topics, that class will move at a quicker pace.
If you’re a rising junior, consider taking AB your junior year and BC your senior year. But if you’re a rising senior, you get to decide which course would be a better fit.
There are two major factors in determining whether AP Calculus AB vs BC would be a better fit: your math background and future plans.
If you're jumping from Algebra II to AP Calculus, skipping Pre-Calculus, I suggest AP Calculus AB. This will give you time to learn some key Pre-Calculus concepts like the Unit Circle and solving trigonometric equations. If you choose to jump from Algebra II to AP Calc BC, you're also missing an introduction into polar curves, sequences, and series, topics that are only part of the BC curriculum. That would be difficult to fill in those gaps in knowledge while keeping up with the pace of AP Calculus BC topics.
If you earned A’s or high B’s in all high school math classes (Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus), then your math foundation is solid, and you’re likely prepared for AP Calculus BC. Calculus brings together those previous math classes in a magical, yet sometimes challenging way. Having a strong math background is important for the rigor and quicker pace of BC Calculus.
If you’ve consistently earned B’s in math, AP Calculus AB may be a better fit. AB moves at a slower pace than BC, so you’ll have more time to practice and apply new concepts.
You can still take AP Calculus BC if you didn’t earn high math grades, but you’ll have to work harder to fill in some gaps in understanding. Read more about what topics to review and how to ace your first AP Calculus test.
The past doesn’t have to determine your future. Just because you didn’t earn the best grades in math up to this point, doesn’t mean you won’t do well in AP Calculus. Maybe you’ve recently realized a desire to become an engineer, so you want to take AP Calculus to prepare for the upcoming Calculus courses required in college. This new motivation to learn Calculus may take you further than a classmate who is just taking the class to boost their college resume.
If you know a future college major you’d be interested in, research the college classes required to complete the degree. The class requirements will be similar regardless of the college you choose to attend, so don’t worry if you haven’t decided on a college yet.
In a search engine, type in a college, your desired major, and the word “curriculum.” For example, if I wanted to go to Ohio University and major in Civil Engineering, I would type in “Ohio University Civil Engineering curriculum.” It may take some clicking around the university’s website, but you should be able to find the program overview, with some required courses listed. I found the Civil Engineering degree required both Calculus I and II, as most Engineering degrees do. If you’re interested in becoming an engineer (or any other major that requires Calculus II), taking AP Calculus BC may be a better option.
It’s worth noting that for the AP Calculus BC exam, students get a BC score and an AB sub-score. If students show mastery on the AB topics, they can earn college credit for Calculus I. Students passing the BC exam can earn college credits for both Calculus I and Calculus II, depending on the college.
Even if you don’t earn college credit for both Calculus I and II, having exposure to the content will make it easier to learn and master the second time in college. The first chapter in most Calculus II courses is different integration techniques. AB covers basic integration and u-substitution. BC covers those two techniques along with integration by parts and partial fractions. Calculus II students also learn integration using trigonometric substitution. Having to learn all of those integration techniques and determine which one to use can be overwhelming to a new college student, so taking BC would be helpful if you need to take Calculus II.
On the other hand, you may be advanced in math, but don’t desire to pursue a math-based career. For example, searching “Florida State Exercise Physiology Curriculum,” the highest math course required is Pre-Calculus and Statistics. Taking AP Calculus AB may satisfy the Pre-Calculus requirement, but there would be no benefit to taking AP Calculus BC. In fact, it may be more beneficial to take AP Statistics if possible!
Assessing your math background and future career goals should help determine if AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC is a better fit. There are other factors to consider such as summer assignments and scheduling conflicts (at some schools BC is two class periods and AB is only one class period) if you still can’t decide which course is a better fit.
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